BANGUI, Central African Republic: Central African strongman Michel Djotodia on Monday dissolved the country’s institutions and declared transitional rule a day after a bloody coup that forced the president into exile and drew international condemnation.
The former diplomat turned rebel leader, whose Seleka coalition took over the capital Bangui in a rapid-fire weekend assault, said he would rule by decree until elections are organised in three years.
The African Union promptly suspended the coup-prone landlocked nation while the United Nations Security Council convened emergency talks.
President Francois Bozize fled across the Oubangui river into the Democratic Republic of Congo at the weekend before resurfacing in Cameroon where the authorities said he was “awaiting his departure to another host country.”
“I consider it necessary to suspend the November 27, 2004 constitution, to dissolve parliament as well as the government,” Djotodia, who is thought to be aged around 60, told reporters in Bangui late Monday.
“During that transition period which will lead us to free, credible and transparent elections, I will legislate by decree,” the new strongman of the mineral-rich but woefully underdeveloped nation said.
In an interview with Radio France Internationale earlier Monday, Djotodia made it clear he did not rule himself out of the polls he promised for 2016.
The power change in Bangui came after a lightning offensive that shattered a January 11 power-sharing deal between Bozize’s regime and Seleka.
With the riverside city still without electricity or radio Monday, it was difficult to assess casualties but the fighting that took place left 13 South African soldiers dead, the nation’s heaviest post-apartheid military loss.
President Jacob Zuma said the troops died in a nine-hour “high-tempo battle” against “bandits”. There were no immediate plans to withdraw troops deployed alongside the weak national army, he added.
France, which sent 300 troops over the weekend to reinforce its 250 soldiers already stationed there, also said its forces had shot dead two Indian nationals who were approaching the airport in speeding vehicles Monday.
Bangui is heavily reliant on foreign aid and in an apparent attempt to reassure donors, Djotodia vowed there would be no witch hunt. He announced he would keep Nicolas Tiangaye as prime minister. He was appointed to that post as part of the January deal.
“We hereby pledge to lead the Central African people’s destiny during this three-year period of consensus transition in compliance with the Libreville accord,” he said.
The peace deal signed in Gabon two months ago had brought an end to a month-long Seleka offensive that had swept southward and was stopped only thanks to Chadian military intervention.
Bozize himself seized power in a 2003 coup in the chronically unstable country, where eccentric leader Jean-Bedel Bokassa seized power on New Year’s Day 1966 before declaring himself emperor in 1976 and eventually being ousted three years later.
Bozize, once the country’s youngest general, had become unpopular as promises to harness the oil, gold and uranium wealth that has remained largely untapped since independence from France in 1960 remained unfulfilled.
The Seleka rebels were initially welcomed by residents waving palm leaves in celebration, but this later turned to anxiety as looters took to the streets.
Djotodia vowed in his address Monday night to restore order and press on with the disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration of former rebels that has been the core grievance of his Seleka movement.
The continental bloc said it had “decided to suspend with immediate effect (the) Central African Republic from all African Union activities and to impose sanctions, travel restrictions and an asset freeze on Seleka’s leaders.”
Amid growing international condemnation of the coup, which the European Union said was “unacceptable”, the Security Council was set to call for a swift return to democracy.
“There is a new president, self-proclaimed in a totally unconstitutional way and the question we are all asking is how to come back to a constitutional situation, how to have elections as quickly as possible,” France’s UN ambassador Gerard Araud told reporters as he announced the meeting.
The US State Department said Sunday it was “very concerned by the worsening humanitarian situation in CAR and credible, widespread reports of human rights abuses by both national security forces and Seleka fighters”.
It also called for rebels to restore electric power and water supplies to the capital after sabotaging them over the weekend but stopped short of describing Seleka’s move as a coup.
UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon also condemned the seizure of power by Seleka — a loose alliance of three rebel movements — calling for “the swift restoration of constitutional order”.